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Posts published in “Idaho”

The quiet part

Elected officials usually express deference toward the people who put them into office, and why not? Those who hire can fire.

A number - many - of Idaho legislators this year have conveyed very much the opposite, and why not? They probably figure - and may be right - their prospects of getting the boot are remote.

The hook for this thought last week was the lengthy House floor debate of House Bill 339, which was one of the more notable - albeit not heavily headlined - measures of the year.

It called for a ballot issue, “to allow Idaho voters the opportunity to indicate their support or opposition to the question: Should the State of Idaho, the Idaho Legislature, or any state agency direct or appropriate public tax dollars to private K-12 schools, including private religious schools, and for-profit schools? The advisory vote would take place during the November 2024 statewide general election.”

The bill failed 27-43, and I won’t take sides on that. I was drawn into this not by the virtues of the bill but by an argument among legislators related to it.

The sponsor, Lewiston Republican Lori McCann, said the school funding question has come up repeatedly at the legislature, and she (and other bill backers) advised “taking the temperature” of the Idaho electorate about it.

Some opponents to the bill seemed to think, wrongly, McCann was a proposing an initiative that would bypass the legislature. But the idea that legislators should even know or care about the people’s attitude was what drew the strongest response.

Oakley Representative Douglas Pickett spoke glowingly of the wonders of debate in the Statehouse, but “this bill would rob anybody of any opportunity to have the benefit of that conversation.” Pickett expressed direct concern about thinly informed constituents, though he did not indicate that was a problem in voting for legislators. (Of course, in his part of Idaho actual contested races are scarce.)

An ideological gloss was put on this as well. “We are a republic,” Representative Vito Barbieri said: “We’re not a democracy but we're moving in that direction, and that blows my mind.” (Okay.) Remember: The United States and its states are a democracy in a republican form; in the United States these are not separate ideas. A republic not based in democracy is something like, say, Cuba (officially, the Republic of Cuba) or China (the People's Republic of China). Maybe many Idaho legislators would prefer something along those lines.

Is constituent involvement what these legislators really didn't want? With that in mind, this quote (video of which went viral on Twitter) from Idaho Falls Representative Barbara Erhardt jumped out:

“The very first thing I’d submit is that which has very well been crafted [referring to earlier debate], which is, this leads us directly into democracy. And I am opposed to that.”

Some of the Twitter response to this showed what some Idahans might think in response: “We already knew she is opposed to democracy, but I didn't ever think she'd say it out loud so directly.” “Probably the only honest thing she’s said all session. Maybe ever.” “Opposed to Democracy. Just unbelievable.”

Not unbelievable: This is the same group that has voted to virtually eliminate initiatives and curtail voting. It’s of a piece. Whoever they think should be running Idaho, it’s sure not “the people” of the state. Idaho legislators - not all but more than a few - are saying that the public will be emotional and irrational and subject to simplistic argument, while legislators listen to all points of view carefully and soberly and deliver unbiased nuanced decisions. (If you have any familiarity with the sausage-making that is legislating, even in the best of statehouses, I apologize for prompting a gag reflex.)

McCann said in her closing remarks, “I just want to know what is the will of the people of Idaho and I feel like people [in this chamber] are afraid to actually hear what the people want. … I believe strongly in the will of the people.”

Be it noted: She’s not completely alone but definitely in the minority in the Idaho House - and her suggestion of motivation was surely spot on. The question remains: How many more years will the voters of the state put up with it?



The legislators of hazard

The Idaho Legislature may be making Idaho a legally and financially hazardous place to live, though maybe unexpectedly profitable for others.

Overtly, this year’s session has taken aim at large numbers of people, and a lot of people who never thought of themselves as being at legal and financial risk might be caught up in legislation running through this year’s session

State Representative Steve Berch outlined a large chunk of this in his latest constituent newsletter, arguing, “the ugly is showing up in poison pills buried in many of the bills we've been voting on lately. Never before have there been such deliberately harsh punishments attached to bills.”

The punishments, which have tended to get less news coverage than the top-line prohibitions, really do seem central.

Take for example the famous “bathroom bill” (Senate Bill 1100) which says, “Any student who, while accessing a public school restroom, changing facility, or sleeping quarters designated for use by the student's sex, encounters a person of the opposite sex has a private cause of action against the school if:  (a) The school gave that person permission to use facilities of the opposite sex; or (b) The school failed to take reasonable steps to prohibit that person from using facilities of the opposite sex.” (Note that this doesn’t even specifically reference transgender people; it applies to anyone; nor does it specify the “reasonable steps.”)

The next section outlines the “cause of action,” which awards the complainant $5,000 for each instance of an “encounter,” plus damages from the school, plus attorneys’ fees. And it can be filed any time in the upcoming four years.

Hey kids! Having trouble meeting college expenses? Hey parents! Running low on cash? Have I got a fundraising idea for you …

As Berch points out, the legislature also is doing much more to exact pain from various groups of people for various purposes.

The Parental Rights Protection of Minors Act, aimed at limiting minors’ exposure to online materials, seems to target manufacturers of online communications devices, requiring them to set up special filters (apparently applicable specifically to Idaho) and allows parents or guardians of any minor who accesses and uses such an unfiltered device to sue for $40,000 plus a bunch of other damages; plus, there’s a criminal penalty involved for private users as well. (Will the attorney general’s office advise the legislature what a legal dog’s breakfast this is? Hmm.)  At least this one has been sitting quietly in Senate committee for a while.

Then there’s transporting a minor across state lines (House Bill 242) for a legal abortion (actually, the bill is much broader than that): a $20,000 civil penalty plus fees and attorney costs, and you can sue up to six years after the fact.

The anti-library “harmful to minors” bill (House Bill 138) - goes way beyond just trying to ban certain books - it allows plaintiffs to “recover $10,000 in statutory damages for each instance in which they obtained material harmful to minors.” Who knows what someone may deem harmful? Forget the lottery: This could be a serious jackpot … until it shuts down the libraries because of legal risk.

We shouldn’t forget the ill-defined “drag show bill” (House Bill 265) which doesn’t mention that term at all, but instead refers to “sexual exhibition,” without defining the term other than as something “patently offensive,” which varies a lot from person to person. (The underlying target of the bill was drag shows, though those available to minors include no actual sexual activity.) On this one you can sue for $10,000 per offensive incident, plus legal costs.

Plus so much more. And remember: When it comes to civil actions, proof beyond a reasonable doubt isn’t necessary.

If you want to argue I’m overreacting, consider: A bunch of Idaho legislators apparently think these issues are serious, else why would they be doing all this?

Could be quite a payday for some Idahoans, at the expense of others. Idaho may be about to turn into the sue me-sue you state.

Courtesy the party of getting government off your back.


Phil Batt

There’s a standard - a standard courtesy, maybe - that when people are mentioned in public accounts after their death, what’s said are almost entirely good things, however controversial the person may have been in life.

The commentary on Phil Batt, a public Idahoan of many decades’ standing who died on March 4, was not much different. The former governor, lieutenant governor, legislator, state party chair and more was widely praised. But what may have been less obvious to many people, at this late date, is that much the same was said during his lifetime, many years ago.

Most Idahoans. Not necessarily all.

When I first heard of him, in the mid-70s, everyone from conservative Republicans to liberal Democrats seemed to agree that this was a smart, ethical, public-spirited guy with an interest in both economy and fairness. And he was only a decade into his years of service back then, which in hindsight was remarkable since learning this about him could take a little time and observation. He wasn’t the world’s best self-promoter. Though for a time also a newspaper columnist, he never was more profligate with words than with money; the quotes in his column are about as loquacious as he got.

Back in 2012, Martin Peterson and I included Batt in our book about (in our opinion) the 100 most influential Idahoans in the state’s history. Here’s part of what we wrote:

“Batt had a long history in Idaho politics from his first election to the Idaho House in 1964 until he departed the governor’s office after 1998. He was a legislator for many of those years, a lieutenant governor and chair of the state Republican Party, which he helped put back together after its disastrous 1990 election (the most recent bad one that party has had).

“Partly because his credentials in all those areas are so unquestioned, and partly because he chooses his moments carefully, Batt is listened to closely when he does speak.

“One of those occasions in 2014 came after state legislative leaders declined to consider ‘add the words’ legislation on gay rights. Batt responded with an impassioned newspaper column which concluded, ‘I would like to have somebody explain to me who is going to be harmed by adding the words to our civil rights statutes prohibiting discrimination in housing and job opportunities for homosexuals. Oh, I forgot, that might hurt the feelings of the gay bashers’.”

“The column generated a lot of discussion.”

Batt went where the facts and humanity of a situation took him. That might mean questioning the guilt of a murder convict (as he did as governor in one memorable case) or supporting rights for farm workers, both times putting him at odds with his natural political allies. And those cases were not unique.

He was a partisan - you don’t get to be chair of a statewide major party if you’re not, and Batt was an unusually successful chair - but while Batt never broke from the Republican Party (and his views on public affairs were not greatly different from decades ago), he seemed distinctly uneasy with some of the more recent trends and currents in it.

And some Republican factions, in a party which has changed a lot over the last few decades, became uneasy with him.

In an interview with Rod Gramer for the book Lucky, Batt spoke of that: “I have been a Republican all my life. I have done a lot of work for Republicans because I believe that they have the best theories toward addressing the needs of national, state and local questions for the benefit of the citizens. I’ve been called a RINO, and I’m not particularly offended by that. But I plead not guilty.”

It depends, presumably, on what “Republican” means. What it meant for Batt involved public service, efficiency, effectiveness, fairness and other virtues. They’re enough for a lot of Idahoans of widespread political persuasions to call him their own, and to wonder where the next generation of people like Phil Batt will come from.


A gat in the hand

I keep recalling the immortal line Humphrey Bogart delivered in the 1946 movie The Big Sleep: “Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains. You're the second guy I've met today that seems to think a gat in the hand means the world by the tail,” just before - or was it just after? - disarming him.

The cause for remembrance is - you knew this was coming - a bill in the Idaho legislature. This one is Senate Bill 1056, which would repeal the long-standing (for most of a century) state law which has prohibited private militia groups from “associating and parading in public with firearms” - presumably, that is, loaded firearms. The bill is at this writing set for a vote on the Senate floor.

The sponsor, Senator Dan Foreman, represents the city of Moscow, a place where public safety is more or less Topic A these days. He offers the rationale that, “we cannot deny people their Second Amendment rights out of fear.”

It is a fig leaf only, for two reasons. One is that the long-standing Idaho law is almost certainly constitutional. Idaho legislators have in hand a letter from Mary McCord, legal director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown Law and former U.S. assistant attorney general for national security, saying flatly, “Idaho’s prohibition against unauthorized paramilitary organizations is fully consistent with the First and Second Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and with the Idaho Constitution.” The Supreme Court has specifically decided as much.

In a radio interview, McCord also pointed out this: “all 50 states have some provision in their state law, whether it's their state constitution or their state statutes, that prohibits private militia, private paramilitary activity.”

The second reason is that the way people challenge denial of their rights under the constitution in this country  is by taking the issue to court, not legislating the answer. This is not about protecting someone’s rights; this is about reshaping Idaho law to create something new.

What is this about? With the usual caveat about avoiding mind reading, the only plausible explanation seems to be broad support of extreme right wing militia activity - and the intimidation factor some of their backers seem to want to encourage.

Some legislators have said this out loud. Senator James Ruchti of Pocatello, for one, said, “We are sending a message to militias: free rein, have at it, start training. We’re sending a message to hate groups to show up in our communities and share your message with us under arms. Bring your weapons.”

There’s that, and more.

One problem is a blurring of who actually has law enforcement authority; another is the pursuit of flat-out illegal acts (the attempted kidnapping and murder of the governor of Michigan, for example).

More broadly, one police organization summarized this way; “The normalization of the gathering of these groups in public and the possible appearance of these groups’ alignment with police agencies presents unique challenges to public and officer safety. During 2020, unauthorized armed groups protested public health lockdowns, opposed racial justice protestors, conspired to abduct state governors and kill law enforcement officers, and in an event indelibly imprinted on the country, participated in the siege of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, during which five people died.”

I would add one more problem: The appearance of armed gangs (which is what they are) around polling places and other election activities disrupts our voting processes - as, apparently, they are intended to do (and seems to have been tried in some states). There is here a specific agenda to attack our right to govern ourselves - or to vote for anyone unapproved of by the gang.

In the end, this kind of thing will fail, because as Bogart reminded us so long ago, a gat in the hand does not mean the world by the tail.

But if some Idaho legislators get their way, we’ll have a lot more painful experiences, and threats to our common rights to govern ourselves, before we come to a broad-enough acceptance of that truth.


What they’re voting for

New Idaho Secretary of State Phil McGrane may have set a record for this year’s legislative session: Three bills clearing a committee (Senate State Affairs) for floor action, all at once, all on a hot subject - voting in elections - and all three sensible.

To be sure, two of them are mostly by way of cleanup. House Bill 11 (which has already passed the House) would simply ban private money from being used to run elections (a spot-on point, though I admit to some surprise this legislature signed on to it so easily). And Senate Bill 1048 exempts from election audits precincts that already are being reviewed because of close-election recounts.

More interesting is an idea (Senate Bill 1078) promoted occasionally over the years which never has taken root in Idaho: Authorizing voter guides featuring candidates.

The idea is not entirely new to Idaho, since the state has for decades provided information to voters about ballot issues, a good thing as far as it goes. More than 30 states make available similar information. Far fewer do the same for candidates.

The most elaborate and per-capita costly voter guide system in the nation may be Oregon’s. A study made in 2001 found eight states providing candidate information for voter guides, and Oregon spent the most on them ($4.2 million then). It provides separate guides for local area about candidates down to the smallest districts, plus issues and more, so that when the guide for a particular voter shows up in the mail (everyone registered gets one) it covers all the races from top of ballot to the smallest of districts in the area where the voter lives. (They could improve on cost by allowing voters to opt in to email versions, as eventually they probably will.) These candidates can - and most do - buy inexpensive space to describe themselves and their views. And there’s much more.

McGrane’s effort would be more modest. Its statement of purpose said his guides would include “information about candidates for federal and state offices, as well as other election information.” Whether legislative candidates would be included was not clearly noted; the indication seemed to take in just statewide and federal candidates. (California does it that way.)

That still would be a good start, though more is needed.

Idahoans get far too little information about candidates that isn’t either paid for by candidates or their advocates or opponents - and little opportunity to compare the candidates head to head, and often in the form of horribly misleading ads. (And never mind the eye-rolling stuff developed by groups like the Idaho Freedom Foundation.)

Back when Idaho had more newspapers and when they had much more space for news, far more extensive descriptions of the candidates were available to readers. Much of that has gone away.

Do you know who your legislators are? Do you know what they’re up to? Do you know how they’re voting and what they’re supporting and opposing? (I mean the specifics, not some garbage “freedom index.”) Do you know who influences them? Idahoans (and most other Americans) get little by way of civic education and little encouragement to check the many public resources that are available. Lots of candidate finance data must, by law, be filed with state or local agencies, and most of that is available online; outside of political activists, lobbyists and reporters, few people evidently look at it. At a time when most legislators can (reasonably) simply assume they’ll be re-elected if they want to be, the voters back home may have distressingly meager influence.

Many Idahoans appear to know little about most of the candidates they vote for in general elections aside from the party designation - mostly Republican or Democratic - next to their names. Making a choice on the basis of no more than that simply is bad citizenship.

Voter guides, easily produced and placed directly in voters’ hands, could be one step toward helping.

Will the Idaho Legislature go for a project that could result in voters knowing more about them and what they do?

Pay attention to this at least: What the Idaho Senate and House floors do with the new legislation.


The Greater calculus

The push for a “Greater Idaho” jurisdiction transition - extending the state of Idaho west to include most of eastern Oregon - got started with enthusiasm in a number of rural Oregon communities.

Although 11 Oregon counties have in fact voted for the idea the heavier momentum for it now seems to be centered in the Idaho Legislature.

Last week, the Idaho House passed a memorial (now under consideration at the Senate) saying, “the Idaho Legislature stands ready to begin discussions with the Oregon Legislature regarding the potential to relocate the Oregon/Idaho state boundary, in accordance with the will of the citizens of eastern Oregon, and we invite the Oregon Legislature to begin talks on this topic with the Idaho Legislature.”

It makes for great PR for state officials in Idaho - “just look at all these people in the blue state who want to go red with us!” - and there’s no criticizing them for taking advantage of it on that level.

But nothing will come of this, of course. The idea has been raised at Salem, receiving no serious traction. The hurdles of changing a state boundary are such that hardly ever in American history has it been accomplished, though often proposed.

All that said, what sort of practical impacts might we be talking about?

On a partisan level, the shifts would not help Republicans, though Democrats could see some pluses.

Bear in mind that these counties (I’m including here all 11 voting so far in favor of the change, including Jefferson and Klamath, which are too closely tied to the west realistically to cut off) are among Oregon’s most rural, remote and lightly-populated places. They occupy more than half of Oregon’s land mass (Oregon has more square miles than Idaho) but include fewer than five percent of its people, at 208,800 barely a quarter of what you’d need to form a congressional district. The area hasn’t been growing in population.

(You might reflect on the idea that at least five percent of Idahoans - including a large chunk of the capital city - probably would be happy to secede from the Gem State, given the option.)

Idaho presently is well positioned as is to pick up its long-awaited third congressional district after the 2030 census, but an infusion of 200,000 or so from Oregon would come nowhere close enough to add a fourth.

In Oregon (its overall state population is well over double Idaho’s), the loss of the 200,000 would be unlikely to cost its new sixth congressional district. But, since all - every one - of the 11 counties which would be departing are strongly Republican, the more likely effect would involve a shift away from the current mix of four Democratic, one strongly competitive and one (the eastern - the 2nd) strongly Republican. The probable outcome once remapping dust settled, with the departure of so many Republican votes, would be six districts all leaning in the Democratic direction. (U.S. House Democrats might reasonably be pushing for Greater Idaho.)

In Idaho’s legislature, the mandatory 35 districts would be stretched a little larger across more constituents, increasing the district populations by about a tenth. The new western addition likely would make the legislature a shade more Republican, by a seat or two in each chamber, but by not enough so almost anyone would notice. The difference in Oregon, where the parties are much more closely matched in the legislature, could be more substantial: The loss of most of eastern Oregon probably would be enough to lock in supermajority status for Democrats, which (a difference from Idaho) matters there when it comes to passing tax and budget bills.

Speaking of budgets and taxes, there’ll be the matter of imposing the sales tax in the commerce-light (and in many cases commerce-struggling) eastern Oregon counties, and the loss of some now-legal businesses (cannabis-related, for one example) that wouldn’t be allowed in Idaho. In Oregon, those counties take more money from the state government than they contribute, and the same almost certainly would be true in Idaho, creating more pressure than at present when the day comes (as it will) when state revenues and budgets are tighter. And remember: As in Idaho, the bulk of eastern Oregon lands are federally-run.

Little wonder many (mostly Democratic) western Oregonians would be  perfectly happy with the Greater Idaho proposal. The larger wonder is the Idahoans who feel that way.


The pipeline

Here’s a suggestion for how Idaho readers of legislative news might absorb it more effectively:

Read the legislative news from other states, too. And in addition to that, the websites of organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council, and especially the cluster of ideologically-focused national education-related groups.

When you see a news story declaring the latest problematic (and maybe unconstitutional) idea is being sponsored by such-and-such an Idaho legislator, there’s an excellent chance it’s merely the local planting of something originating from a national organization. In fact, it’s a good probability.

One of the most influential organizations at the Statehouse is the Idaho Freedom Foundation, which has an outsized impact through its ratings of legislation and legislators, and has an operations base in Boise. But put aside the recent (albeit amusing) headlines about how the group’s leader, Wayne Hoffman, now lives in Washington state. More important are the close ties the IFF has to “conservative, free market” interest groups around the country. These groups, active in many states, are far from grass roots. Not only the “Freedom” but also the “Idaho” in the IFF’s name is more illusion than fact.

ALEC is probably the better example of all this. Decades old (I was writing about its impact on the Idaho Legislature back in the 80s), it is a big-money collective of top corporate lobbyists who hold regular conferences to which state legislators - large numbers nationwide participate - are invited. The legislators are wined and dined and carry back home legislation someone at a corporation or a well-funded think tank or a Republican party organization dreamed up. And then the next legislative session, and that state’s actual residents, have to deal with it. It’s happened in Idaho (and other states) uncounted times in the last couple of generations, barely noted publicly. (Idaho’s current state chair is Representative Sage Dixon.)

But ALEC is by no means alone. A whole lot of that “Idaho legislation” comes from other places, and one of the best (and relatively few) recent outlines of how that works showed up in a recent article in the Idaho Capital Sun and Idaho Ed News.

Under the headline “Records show powerful, wealthy funders outside Idaho back school choice campaign,” it describes how a collection of national organizations, centered mainly on education, have been funding Idaho legislative races and then feeding its preferred and winning candidates legislation to run through Boise.

The story said, “The national special interests groups who have poured millions of dollars into efforts to make education savings account programs a reality in states like Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Wisconsin and New Hampshire are the same donors who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars during Idaho’s midterm election to ensure school choice-friendly legislators occupied as many seats as possible in the Idaho Legislature, records show.” (Read the whole article; the rundown on how the money is filtered through one shell after another is a little complex.)

Most prominently it cited the American Federation for Children (focused on alternatives to public schools) and the State Policy Network (slogan: “state solutions. national impact,” and opposed generally to unions and public services overall); the IEN describes them as “coordinated and funded by millionaires and billionaires dedicated to conservative policy positions.” Their fingerprints are all over the Idaho Legislature this term.

Check out as well the op-ed in the Idaho Falls Post Register which pointed out, “Much of the funding comes from out-of-state groups such as Betsy Devos’s American Federation for Children. They spent $274,000 in the Idaho primary and general elections on pro-school privatization candidates.”

It’s not that Idaho shouldn’t pick up good ideas from other states, or even national organizations, when they might make sense locally - and there are many good examples of the state benefiting from doing that. But most of those ideas worth implementing are good enough to sell themselves; their advocates don’t need to stuff Idaho political campaigns full of money to push them through.

So if your legislator is backing one of these things, ask them who they’re really working for: People in Idaho, or money bags outside of it.


Making it work

Some years ago, I asked a legislative bill researcher what seemed like a simple question: How many felony offenses are on the books in Idaho, and what are they?

He had no idea. His best suggestion was to try a search through the Idaho Code - the state law - but that didn’t work very well either. The number seemed to be in the neighborhood of “several hundred,” more or less (probably more). Because of the way many legal requirements relate to each other, coming up with a definite number probably is impossible.

Many activities (or failure to perform them) are felonies, and if you’re certain you’ve never committed a felony, or at least not recently … don’t be too sure.

Felonies, of course, are only a piece of the legal picture, since misdemeanors and local ordinances figure in too, along with federal law, all of it relevant to law enforcement.

Law enforcement in Idaho is, definitionally, supposed to enforce the law - but as a matter of fact and reality, not all of it. How could it? Far more offenses can be found on the books than even the best-staffed, best-funded, best-trained enforcement agency possibly could enforce. Even enforcement of local ordinances, for example, often is “complaint driven,” with officers becoming involved when someone becomes a squeaky enough wheel.

All this should come as no surprise to most people, but evidently it may to Idaho Representative Bruce Skaug, R-Nampa, the sponsor of House Bill 22. Following up on an apparently discarded effort to penalize any city that fails vigorously to enforce the state’s new abortion law, this one is broader: “This bill withholds sales and use tax revenue distributions to city or county governments that take actions, such as proclamations, to refuse to enforce any felony listed in Idaho criminal code. Some local governments may take it upon themselves to defy state law by refusing to enforce Idaho criminal codes. This bill allows a remedy to prevent ongoing or future lawlessness.” It doesn’t specify abortion laws, but, well, it doesn’t really have to.  The point is evident enough.

What it would do is another matter. How would this actually work as a matter of practice? You could ask, to start, who in the state’s financial machinery would determine whether a specific local government is “refusing to enforce” when it comes to state felonies? Any felonies or just some? Are they only supposed to pay attention to abortion law but ignore, say, other offenses? (Whatever they are.)

The bill does refer to a trigger: “Any mayor, council, board of commissioners, or any other governing body of a city or county governmental entity that issues an ordinance, resolution, executive order, proclamation, or similar official directive refusing to investigate or enforce …” So would a local government skirt the law by simply not posting a directive on paper (or website)? (That would seem a pretty easy legislature-defeating workaround.) Will managerial conversations be reportable? To whom? Who makes the determination of whether a refusal to enforce something is actually happening?

Someone at the legislature might want to check in with their local police.

Ask a cop - as I occasionally have over the years - how they choose to budget their time and effort, considering the immense range of possible things they might usefully be doing, and you’ll likely get something like the answer I generally have:

Priority usually goes to public safety and protection of people and property. Apart from some standard operations (such as traffic enforcement), much of the rest is, like a lot of government enforcement, complaint-driven. There are lots of legal violations for which a law officer might act, but their work would be an exercise in chaos if there were no priorities. And as you may have heard, if you emphasize everything, you emphasize nothing.

Presumably what Skaug, and probably other Idaho legislators, would like to see is Idaho law enforcement putting enforcement of the abortion law somewhere around the top of their priority list. If they did that, something else - violent crime or traffic hazards, say - might be moved down the list. And there’s the question of how, exactly, police would go about enforcing the abortion law. (Would they make the rounds of clinics or doctor’s offices to find out who’s there and for what?)

All of which could, prospectively, make for an interesting debate on the floors of the Idaho Legislature, and beyond.


A tougher job

Mike Moyle, the new Idaho House speaker, provoked a subject worth considering early in this session when he proposed the legislature change the way it approves, internally, state budgets.

For more than half a century, the process has worked like this: From the beginning of each session, the 10 members of each of the two budget committees - Senate Finance and House Appropriations - convene together nearly every day the legislature is in session. (Together, it is called the Joint Finance Appropriations Committee, or JFAC as Statehouse people usually call it.) It has by far the most physical building space of any committee, and it long has had a substantial year-round professional staff.

At first committee members get budget and revenue overviews, then hear public requests and proposals from state agencies (that’s where they are right now in this session). Then they pause to catch their breath, and start negotiating and voting on the dollar amounts. Those budgets, mostly agency by agency, are sent in bill form to the Senate and House floors - they’re split between them, with first one then the other chamber voting. Usually they pass the bills as written by JFAC and send them on to the governor for signature.

Occasionally there’s a controversy in the process, and JFAC sometimes has been known to rewrite a budget after a floor rejection, but mostly it has for decades worked like a factory process.

Not every state does it this way. Some split the budget-writing between two committees that have little to do with each other (and often then have to negotiate later), or simply divide the voting rather than have a single joint committee do the job at once.

The latter approach seems to be what the speaker is aiming toward. There’s political logic to it: Actually, more rationales than just one. Moyle pointed out, accurately, that in recent sessions House Republicans (the caucus as a whole) have had divided reactions to budget bills coming from the joint committee, and a bill which has pre-approval from a majority of the House members on the committee (since it would be possible for a bill to progress with a majority of the senators but a minority of House members) might have more traction on the House floor.

Of course, that wouldn’t address some of the inevitable discrepancy. The JFAC members, exposed to extensive testimony and detailed budget analysis from staff and other people, simply have deeper grounding in the fine grain of the budget than most other Senate or House members do.

Getting the Senate and House committees to vote separately might do something else too: Weaken JFAC, which usually is considered by far the most powerful legislative committee. The Senate and House members there traditionally work closely together and the budgets they develop are challenged on the floor only uncommonly: Those 20 legislators ordinarily set the terms of state government as much as all the rest put together.

The down side is the complexity of the process. Which side, House or Senate, develops a budget proposal first? If the other side rejects it, what sort of process would they go through to come to an agreement? Eventually, House and Senate committees both still would have to come to terms on numbers. A broken-up vote process would make that much more complex.

It’s not hard to imagine it adding two or three weeks to a legislative session - unless, of course, the members quietly met to hash out behind-closed-doors deals on what would get majority votes on both sides. And considering the many times that quiet negotiations among JFACers have determined important budget bills in the past, you can imagine that as more likely in the future rather than less. A good deal less of the sometimes frustrating work of budget crafting might take place in public.

Of course, as noted, various states use a range of procedures in building their budgets at the legislative level, and none are perfect. In Idaho, after half a century and more of one procedure, there’s nothing wrong with taking a look at alternatives.

As legislators do consider the options, though, they may be wise to consider whether they’re looking at taking a step forward, or back.